The 10 Best Pearl Jam Songs Of The 21st Century

Danny Clinch

The 10 Best Pearl Jam Songs Of The 21st Century

Danny Clinch

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Pearl Jam’s third album, Vitalogy — aka the most significant release in the grunge survivors’ long discography. And that’s not just because it remains the only Pearl Jam album where you’ll find an accordion lullaby about insects butting up against psychedelic mantras and freeform sound collages. While it was initially received as an anti-pop reaction to the hypestorm engulfing the band’s blockbuster 1991 debut Ten and its equally earthshaking 1993 follow-up Vs., in hindsight, Vitalogy was less a Kid A-style gateway into some new avant-garde phase than a stress-relieving exorcism of all tensions weighing on the band from within and without: the death of Kurt Cobain, the mounting legal battle against Ticketmaster, the imminent dismissal of drummer of Dave Abbruzesse for being too much of a bro.

But look beyond the album’s weirdo detours, and Vitalogy actually captures the sound of a band eschewing alterna-trendiness for classic-rock steadiness. Compared to the muscular mosh-pit anthems of Ten and Vs., Vitalogy’s rockers exuded more of an unkempt garage-band energy, while the ballads were no longer mere breathers between the stage dives, but the emotional foundation of the record. Like their hero-turned-friend Neil Young, Pearl Jam realized that digging in for the long haul would require a certain degree of energy conservation, and a harmonious balance between ragged glory and folksy intimacy.

Thanks to the great strides they made on Vitalogy, Pearl Jam were able to transcend their Seattle-grunge origin story to become a nation-state unto themselves, one completely impervious to changing musical tides yet still tuned into the socio-political tenor of the times. And even though the band’s stranglehold on the zeitgeist loosened considerably from there on out, you’d never know it from attending one of their famously epic concerts, where packed arena crowds shout along to the deep cuts as enthusiastically as the hits, while a vast online fan ecosystem catalogs and dissects every single song and setlist with scholarly devotion.

As the copious “sold out” buttons on their current tour dates page affirm, Pearl Jam have cultivated one of the largest and most loyal fanbases in rock for three decades running — the type of stans who have the stickman tattooed on their bodies, name their children after its songs and band members, and quit their day jobs to follow them on the road. That said, they’re also a textbook example of an “I prefer their old stuff” band: Eight of the band’s top 10 songs on Spotify hail from the 1990s — which is to be expected, given that their first three albums were generation-defining milestones that collectively sold over 25 millions copies in the US alone. However, those numbers also speak to the unwavering consistency of the band’s post-2000 output, which, depending on your vantage, is either Pearl Jam’s greatest asset or greatest crutch. The truth is, once you parse out period-specific lyrical references to George W. Bush or Donald Trump, it can be hard to tell the difference between a Pearl Jam album released in 2002 versus one released in 2009 or 2020. To PJ diehards, that’s what makes the band timeless, but to the less-faithful, these later albums just sound interchangeable. Admittedly, I belong to the latter camp.

Pearl Jam were a pivotal band for me as I entered early-onset adolescence. Ten dropped at the precise moment when I was getting bored with the classic rock I was raised on and I was starting to feel disconnected from my friends, a lot of whom were Deadheads from well-to-do families with secure futures, whereas my dad had just lost his job in the midst of Canada’s 1991 recession and I was working a telemarketing gig on school nights and spending the summer delivering auto-parts for my mechanic brother’s garage. I felt a creeping sense that the carefree childhood chapter of life was truly over and the real world would soon be calling for its pound of flesh.

So when I stumbled upon the video for “Alive” on MuchMusic in the summer of ’91, I instantly knew I had found my band: a Led Zeppelin that I could claim as my own instead of being passed down to me through my older brother’s record collection, but one that was rooted more firmly in relatable, real-life experience and anxieties than Tolkeinesque fantasia and lemon-squeezing bloozeman cosplay. Once I got a copy of Ten, it was effectively glued into my Discman. I’d wear my stickman T-shirt on consecutive days lest it got lost in laundry-basket limbo. I wore out my cassette dub of Stone and Eddie’s Rockline appearance so I could hear the rare airings of “Footsteps” and “Dirty Frank” over and over again. I went to see Singles on opening night. And I made a point of seeking out any band that Pearl Jam name-dropped in interviews, advertised on their T-shirts, or covered in concert, like Fugazi and the Butthole Surfers.

In fact, Pearl Jam were such convincing ambassadors for America’s subterranean musical ecosystem that they effectively helped turn me into the sort of snob who scoffs at populist rock bands like Pearl Jam — i.e. someone who would much rather listen to Mudhoney than a song named after their bassist. Still, even as their music became less interesting and exciting to me, I always retained a great admiration for the idea of Pearl Jam: a massively successful yet virtuous band that played by their own rules, always looked out for their fans, and used their platform to elevate lesser-known artists and amplify important social causes. I just wished they had moved deeper into the uncharted territory that Vitalogy momentarily opened up, instead of settling into the (ahem) even flow of scrappy rockers and wistful ballads that has defined much of their post-’94 discography.

At this point, I’ve come to see Pearl Jam as a distant yet fondly remembered relative I keep tabs on through occasional Facebook updates. They may no longer be part of my day-to-day listening habits, but there have been enough attention-seizing singles, intriguing album cuts, outtakes, and compilation loosies scattered among their post-’90s catalog to make me grateful they’re still around. As the aforementioned Spotify stats make clear, I’m hardly the only lapsed Pearl Jam fan out there, so the following Top 10 list of 21st-century PJ standouts is really for that legion of former acolytes who’ve helped push “Alive” and “Even Flow” past the half-billion stream mark, but may not even realize the band is releasing a new record, Dark Matter, this week. And while these songs may not necessarily time-warp you back to the pit at Lollapalooza ’92, each offers a reminder of those special qualities—be it the righteous anger, the melodic levity, or the oft-overlooked sense of humor—that have allowed Pearl Jam to retain their cred long after they got blamed for Creed.


"Wreckage" (from Dark Matter, 2024)

In a recent interview with SPIN, Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard admitted that the band no longer has the stamina to pull off three-hour shows night after night. (Bassist Jeff Ament has already crossed the threshold into his 60s, and Vedder will join him there this December.) But on Dark Matter, they cannonball into the fountain of youth at the behest of producer Andrew Watt, the Post Malone/Justin Bieber associate who’s more recently applied his platinum touch to rock elders seeking a musical Botox injection. As a superfan who learned guitar by playing along to Pearl Jam songs, Watt seizes the opportunity to doll up his favorite band with more polish and punch, though, at times, it can leave Pearl Jam sounding less like their spry early-’90s selves than the burly post-grunge/nu-metaloid chancers that sprouted up in their wake. Ironically, the most resounding echo of the band’s glory years comes through one of the album’s more relaxed tracks: With its jangly acoustic sway and heartland-beckoning hooks, “Wreckage” inspires such vivid flashbacks of a certain Vs. standard that it could’ve easily been titled “Granddaughter.”


"Get It Back" (from the compilation Good Music To Avert The Collapse Of American Democracy, Volume 2, 2020)

After spending much of the ’90s cycling through drummers with near-Spinal Tap-like expediency, Pearl Jam finally found their ride-or-die replacement in Matt Cameron, whose schedule had freed up considerably following Soundgarden’s 1997 dissolution. With Cameron, Pearl Jam not only welcomed in a familiar face who came pre-loaded with an intimate working knowledge of the group, they also gained another industrious songwriter who had a hand in crafting a number of Soundgarden classics. While Cameron has since gone on to co-write several Pearl Jam tunes over the years, “Get It Back” is one of the few where he gets to claim sole credit. It’s a deceptive Trojan Horse of a song, beginning in an incense-scented psychedelic haze before hardening into an agitated rocker that climaxes with a fiery guitar solo. “Get It Back” is a welcome reminder that, in addition to his dual citizenship in Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, Cameron was also one of the masterminds behind the short-lived and highly underrated acid-rock combo the Wellwater Conspiracy.


"My Father's Son" (from Lightning Bolt, 2013)

Unlike many veteran acts, Pearl Jam never lost their capacity to rock out convincingly, but the way in which they rock out has changed considerably since their early days. Ten and Vs. took a lot of rhythmic cues from groove-driven alt-rockers like Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane’s Addiction, effectively putting bassist Jeff Ament in the captain’s chair. But since then, Pearl Jam seem more comfortable in crunchy Crazy Horse and Stones-on-streoids mode, emphasizing the revved-up twin-guitar roar of Gossard and Mike McCready. As a result, “My Father’s Son” pops out of the otherwise anodyne Lightning Bolt by bringing some of Ament’s four-string flair back to the fore, while Vedder responds with the sort of manic, teeth-gnashing performance that suggests he’s looking for the nearest lighting rig to dangle from. And the old-school vibe doesn’t end there, as Vedder digs deeper into the dysfunctional family dynamics first introduced on “Alive.” If that Ten classic documented the moment where Vedder discovered the truth about the man who raised him, “My Father’s Son” catalogs the seismic, still-lingering aftershocks.


"Undone" (from the "I Am Mine" 7", 2002)

In 2007, Vedder delivered the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame induction speech for R.E.M., a band whose influence wasn’t really audible amid the crowd-surfing clamor of Pearl Jam’s early records. But by 2002’s Riot Act, it was undeniable: The album’s centerpiece single “I Am Mine,” is a swaying, Southern gothic shanty that could’ve tumbled out of the Automatic For The People sessions. And the B-side “Undone” is an even more loving tribute to the Athens college-rock legends — while its lyrics are dripping with Dubya-era despair, the song’s jangly guitars and soaring harmonies are highly reminiscent of the music R.E.M. was making back in the Reagan years. In that Hall Of Fame speech, Vedder told the story of seeing R.E.M. playing a small club in Chicago in 1984 and how the experience “changed how I listen to music and what I listened to.” “Undone” sounds like precisely the kind of song he might’ve written while basking in that afterglow.


"Seven O'Clock" (from Gigaton, 2020)

When Pearl Jam dropped the lead single from 2020’s Gigaton — the synth-shocked, Talking Heads-styled funk freakout “Dance Of The Clairvoyants” — there was hope that the album might shake up Pearl Jam’s workmanlike approach with some Vitalogy-style audacity. But if the album ultimately fell short of that expectation, it did at least match Vitalogy’s CD-stuffing near-hour-long run time, giving the band ample time and space to unfurl the sprawling canvas of “Seven O’Clock.” Clocking in at 6:14, it’s among the longest (proper) songs in the PJ canon, but “Seven O’Clock” isn’t so much an epic by design as by necessity. The song is that long simply because Vedder has too much on his mind, his verses rolling into one another with nary a pause as he surveys the perilous state of the world — rising oceans, screen addiction, and Donald Trump included — with the grave solemnity of a doctor delivering bad news to a patient. But the choruses hit like sunbeams bursting through the dark clouds, evoking the synthy symphonics of The Who’s Quadrophenia or the string-swept grandeur of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.” As the song fades out into the horizon, Vedder repeats the words “much to be done” with equal doses of worry and hope, transforming the song’s dystopian diagnosis into a call to action.


"Thumbing My Way" (from Riot Act, 2002)

It’s not a stretch to imagine a certain subset of younger Pearl Jam fans who know little of the band’s grunge roots and instead think of them as a congenial folk-rock act. By a considerable margin, Pearl Jam’s most popular post-2000 songs in the streaming era have been acoustic-based serenades: the Lightning Bolt power ballad “Sirens,” and the Backspacer campfire lullaby “Just Breathe,” which has since been ushered into the country canon through covers by Miley Cyrus and Willie Nelson. But Riot Act’s “Thumbing My Way” feels like the closest thing in the Pearl Jam canon to a true, lived-in country standard, distilling the genre’s age-old themes — lost love, regret, and the long, hard road to redemption — into a humbling hymn delivered by Vedder with a wounded poignancy. (Memo to Willie: Don’t sleep on this one.)


"Sad" (from Lost Dogs, 2003)

If Vitalogy was Pearl Jam’s most important album from a musical and spiritual-evolution standpoint, then 2000’s Binaural marked a crucial turning point from a purely commercial perspective. A year prior to its release, Pearl Jam scored the highest-charting single of their career with their winsome cover of the early-’60s golden oldie “Last Kiss,” but Binaural proved to be a dividing line between casual PJ fans and the cult that stands by them to this day: It was the band’s first album that failed to go platinum in the US. Though not without its quality corkers, Binaural leans heavily into the earthy, atmospheric sound of producer Tchad Blake, and while it’s been reclaimed as an unsung masterwork by a certain contingent of the base, you can’t help but wonder if the album would’ve been more enthusiastically received by the masses if the band had promoted the excellent outtake “Sad” to the final tracklist. Built around a psych-tinged guitar refrain that blurs the line between riff and solo, “Sad” — which eventually emerged on the rarities collection Lost Dogs — is a stark portrait of a man reeling from the death of his partner, but it doesn’t so much wallow in sorrow as capture the fevered, sleepless-night agitation of laying in a suddenly empty bed. Fueled by high drama and ticking-time-bomb intensity, “Sad” could’ve been Binaural’s “Rearviewmirror”-level centerpiece instead of a largely forgotten footnote.


"Life Wasted"/"World Wide Suicide" (from Pearl Jam, 2006)

Ask anyone to imitate Eddie Vedder and nine times out of 10, they’ll start singing “Even Flow” in an impossibly deep voice — i.e. the sound that Scotts Weiland and Stapp took to the bank. But Vedder really does his best work in the higher register, when he works himself into such a frantic, fevered state, he almost sounds like he’s having fun. Pearl Jam have always been great at kicking off their records with a fierce one-two punch, and the pair that kicks off their 2006 self-titled album feel especially like conjoined twins in both content and form. Each song finds Vedder staring down the specter of death: “Life Wasted” is part eulogy to his friend Johnny Ramone, part promise to cherish every waking moment; “World Wide Suicide” is his raging response to the death of NFL player-turned-soldier Pat Tillman and the terrible human cost of Dubya’s misguided War On Terror. But both songs hit that uncanny sweet spot between weighty subject matter and free-spirited rock ‘n’ roll kicks, like a funeral procession peeling down an open freeway.


"Light Years" (from Binaural, 2000)

From day one, Pearl Jam have been a major-label operation, but their indie-rock roots run deep. And long after they graduated to the arena circuit, they maintained strong ties to the underground, whether spinning punk-rock faves on their mid-’90s pirate-radio broadcasts or taking freak-scene royalty like Sonic Youth, Sleater-Kinney, and Ted Leo on tour as openers. But Pearl Jam have never sounded more like a genuine indie-rock act than on “Light Years,” whose brittle beauty suggests an alternate ’90s where Pearl Jam were an obscure Pacific Northwest act signed to Up Records instead of a platinum-selling juggernaut for Epic/Sony. With its perfectly slack backbeat and subtly psychedelic guitar flourishes, “Light Years” is the rare Pearl Jam song you could imagine Pavement or Guided By Voices covering without radically altering its essence. But it’s also a testament to the telepathic intuition Pearl Jam had acquired over their first decade as a band, as those half-second pauses before each chorus line catapult this seemingly casual mid-tempo tune up to the same stratospheric heights as the group’s more overtly anthemic songs.


"The Fixer" (from Backspacer, 2009)

Pearl Jam’s 21st-century discography can be seen as an extended tug-of-war between aging and raging — the desire to share the grace and wisdom that comes with getting older, while still trying to hold onto the fire and passion of youth. And no song in their post-2000 repertoire reconciles those two extremes as effectively and efficiently as “The Fixer,” where Vedder grapples with the struggle of being all things to all people and the impossibility of reliving the past. “When something’s gone, I wanna fight to get it back again,” he sings at the end of the first verse, and as he repeats those words through the chorus, the line between determination and desperation is increasingly blurred. Likewise, the sound of “The Fixer” hovers somewhere between Pearl Jam’s primal, plug ‘n’ play energy and their latter-day melodic finesse, yielding an atypically new-wavish power-pop rave-up that stands as the most immediately catchy song in their canon. Pearl Jam have covered the Beatles on a number of occasions, but “The Fixer” is the PJ song that best demonstrates the Fabs’ first golden rule: Nothing brings people together quite like an ecstatic “Yeah yeah yeah!”

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